Training Great Leaders

How business schools can make sure their most promising faculty are ready to transition into leadership roles. Most faculty aren’t properly trained to take on administrative roles. Washington University’s Jackson Nickerson and AACSB’s Patrick Cullen explain how schools can groom the next generation of academic leaders.
Training Great Leaders

“CONGRATULATIONS! We’d like you to join the dean’s leadership team!” Faculty who hear these words will have different motivations for heeding the call. Whether they’re exploring a career switch, are energized by a new challenge, or simply think it’s their turn to carry the torch for their schools, they all will ask similar questions: “Am I ready for the challenge? What struggles will I face? How can I prepare myself? How will I survive with my sanity intact?

Our interest in these questions is not just academic. Based on personal experiences, we believe that leading in an academic enterprise is more difficult, more challenging, and more nuanced than in any for-profit business. That’s why, four years ago, we set out to understand the common struggles new leaders face so that we could create a leadership development program for AACSB International. We interviewed deans, as well as associate and assistant deans, and we surveyed more than 400 experienced and new deans. We asked what tasks and activities those new to leadership roles struggled with most, and what experienced leaders wished they had known before taking their positions.

The struggles they identified were strikingly similar, falling into three nearly universal categories: the ability to lead organizational change, the ability to think strategically and solve problems creatively, and the ability to develop new leaders and communicate effectively. These themes appeared whether their schools were public or private; large or small; in Europe, the U.S., or anywhere in the world. We used these insights to design Leading in the Academic Enterprise®—a series of development programs offered by AACSB to help leaders successfully tackle the major challenges they will encounter.

As change agents, new leaders must avoid creating impediments to change before they even begin.

Most tellingly, the majority of our interviewees told us that their moves into leadership positions had been unanticipated. Leading a single unit, or an entire organization, had not been one of their long-term career goals. While some had planned to seek leadership positions, few received any training to prepare them for the demands of leadership. This made them acutely aware of the fact that new leaders need training and mentoring if they are to succeed.

Below we describe in more detail the skills new leaders need the most. If you are aspiring to such a position, we hope this information will help you prepare for the challenges ahead. And, if you’re responsible for building your school’s leadership bench, we hope you will address these areas in development programs to ensure effective academic leadership for years to come.


Perhaps the ultimate test of leadership, as opposed to management, is the ability to lead an organization through periods of transition. This could involve creating capabilities such as a new degree program; renovating existing capabilities through a curriculum redesign; or merging programs, departments, or even entire schools. Our interviewees pointed to three vital strategies for managing change in an academic setting:

Adopt a broader focus. Many of our interviewees discovered that, once they joined the dean’s office, they had to move beyond individual and group interests and learn to prioritize the interests of the entire academic enterprise. As one dean put it, “New leaders struggle to understand that the decisions they are making need to be consistent with the strategic decisions of the school.”

For some faculty who move to leadership positions, past experiences make it difficult to adopt a broader mindset. Several interviewees mentioned that faculty are often rewarded for achieving individual or departmental goals. Rarely are they encouraged to consider and develop enterprise-wide perspectives.

Once new leaders adopt broader mindsets, they must rally others to gain support for change initiatives. One dean mentioned that the most effective leaders are “broad thinkers, school-wide, as opposed to departmental thinkers. I would like them to have skills in being able to build coalitions around change.” Indeed, this sentiment resonated with many deans. Another noted, “You must ensure that what is happening is consistent with the needs of the school, and that it’s not just bending to the requests of vocal faculty members.”

Overcome resistance to change. Many deans we talked to noted that resistance to change often begins with new leaders themselves. “Whether it is conscious or unconscious, it is [one’s own] resistance to change, and the resistance to recognizing a need for change, that provides the biggest challenge,” one dean said. But as change agents, new leaders must figure out how to get to “yes,” rather than jumping to “no.” They must avoid creating impediments to change before they even begin to consider new strategies.

Once new leaders overcome their own resistance, the next skill is knowing how to overcome the resistance they encounter in others. One dean remarked, “When I speak with a department chair or an associate dean about something we may want to consider, I immediately get pushback about why we can’t do it.” As another noted, deans can’t dismiss faculty, so they must use approaches like influence and persuasion to gain consensus. However, several interviewees stressed that new leaders rarely know how to use the power of influence and persuasion to lead change effectively.

Communicate a compelling vision. Deans told us repeatedly that many new leaders have difficulty creating and communicating a vision for change. For example, one academic leader pointed out that “issues arise from people being better at big-picture thinking than they are at sitting down with the staff who report to them and setting individual goals so that things get executed well.” New leaders must be able to help others understand a vision and translate that vision into action.


While many academics and professional staff believe they are good at strategic and creative thinking, our interviews and survey suggest that new leaders often lack practical abilities in these arenas. For example, one dean commented on the extent to which department heads struggle to think strategically. “When I asked each of my department heads to devise a department strategy… I had only one person able to really nail that. The other four? It’s been two years and they have not gotten there.” Another dean said that new leaders’ proposed solutions “tend to have a low ‘hit’ rate, primarily because they haven’t been accustomed to thinking broadly about the school’s overall success and strategy.”

These deans acknowledge that they explicitly look for creativity among members of their executive team. Even so, many new leaders lack this characteristic. “I struggle with getting people think beyond incremental change,” one dean noted. “They only want to focus on changes that are comfortable. We need people who understand the speed, the enormity of the change going on outside of our colleges. Once they get that, they must know that we need to think boldly and creatively about how to respond.” Unless new leaders can map creative, strategic thinking onto actionable plans, they will not be able to advance the school’s mission.

Too often faculty are thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim or sink in the turbulent waters of leadership—an expensive way to develop new leaders.


As the prior comments suggest, business schools need leadership bench strength like never before. It’s no surprise that these deans placed a high priority on developing the next generation of leadership talent through coaching and mentoring. Yet our research suggests that few new leaders fully appreciate the kinds of coaching and mentoring that work well in an academic setting. One dean explained that too often faculty are thrown into the deep end of the pool and expected to swim or sink in the turbulent waters of leadership—an expensive way to develop new leaders. “We need to do everything we can,” the dean added, “to help them be successful.”

The right coaching can help potential new leaders develop critical skills. These include the ability to communicate, negotiate, manage conflict, listen effectively—and, most important, engage in difficult conversations. Many deans noted that members of their executive team must learn how to say “no” clearly and firmly, while explaining the reasons for their decisions, some- thing that can be especially difficult to do in the face of a reasonable request.

It takes courage to make these tough decisions, especially when some people are bound to be unhappy as a result. One dean explained, “I don’t think we are trained for that. We want to be nice. We want people to like us. Sometimes we hesitate to have those uncomfortable conversations.” Another dean echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that “most faculty members have not had any training in communicating difficult feed- back.” As a result, professional relation- ships can suffer. The dean elaborated, “How do you remain in a collegial role and at the same time make allocation decisions that often have winners and losers? That’s a tough one.”

Several of the leaders we surveyed emphasized the value of conflict management. One told us that when members of the executive team can handle conflict among themselves, problems are less likely to expand into other academic units. “I really value the ability of my colleagues to resolve conflict themselves in a professional and efficient way.”


So, who among a school’s faculty is ready to lead? The answer to that question depends on how well a school supports its faculty with mentoring, coaching, and training that focus on the demands of academic leadership, such as those described above.

Unfortunately, few of the deans we spoke to believe that business schools do a good job of preparing future academic leaders. “In general, leadership does not come naturally to most faculty,” one dean noted. “They do not have a natural set of skills or inclination around leadership.”

Yet, the need for effective leaders has never been greater. Perhaps the most important lesson we learned from our research is that while many academics do not have the skills to lead success- fully in challenging environments, this does not mean they cannot develop them. Our interviewees agreed that schools that invest in training, mentoring, and development are likely to see great returns, both for their leaders and the larger academic enterprise.

Patrick Cullen is vice president for strategy and innovation at AACSB International, headquartered in Tampa, Florida. Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri; a nonresident senior scholar in government studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.; and associate dean and director of the Brookings Executive Education program.